Optimizing neuroplasticity after spinal cord injury is the best way to boost recovery.
For a long time, it was believed that recovery after spinal cord injury was not possible. We now know that the spinal cord is extremely adaptable because of neuroplasticity, as long as some spared neural pathways exist (an incomplete spinal cord injury).
This article is going to explain what neuroplasticity is, how it works, and what you can do to promote it.
Understanding Spinal Cord Injury Recovery
To understand neuroplasticity, you have to understand how spinal cord injury affects the body.
The spinal cord serves as the communication pathway between the brain and body. After a spinal cord injury, that communication is disrupted, which can result in motor and sensory deficits.
Spinal cord injuries can be complete or incomplete. A complete spinal cord injury is when the spinal cord is completely transected, and brain signals can no longer travel below the level of injury. In contrast, an incomplete spinal cord injury is when the spinal cord is only partially damaged, which leaves spared neural pathways that allow for some movement and/or sensation below the level of injury.
What’s unique about damage to the central nervous system is that it cannot be reversed. Luckily, there’s still hope for recovery through neuroplasticity!
How Neuroplasticity for Spinal Cord Injury Works
Neuroplasticity is the central nervous system’s ability to rewire itself. It’s what allows the brain and spinal cord to adapt and recover functions after injury.
The spinal cord can reassign affected functions to spared neural pathways. However, individuals must repetitively stimulate the spinal cord by practicing weakened movements.
Think, “use it or lose it!” Neuroplasticity functions on demand and occurs all the time, not just after injury. It can promote or impede recovery based on how you choose to approach rehabilitation following your spinal cord injury.
Below, we’ll discuss the 2 mechanisms of neuroplasticity that allow for functional recovery: synaptic reorganization and axonal sprouting.
A synapse is the junction where neurons (nerve cells) transmit information to one another. After spinal cord injury, the spinal cord experiences a heightened state of plasticity due to synaptic changes in neural circuitry.
Every function fires a different set of neural pathways. Neuroplasticity allows spared neurons to adjust their firing properties to help pick up the slack of damaged ones after SCI.
Axons are the part of a neuron that transmits information away from the cell body to other neurons.
Axonal sprouting is when nerve endings emerge from intact axons to strengthen existing connections and reinnervate severed muscle fibers.
These new nerve endings help provide an alternative route between the brain and body.
How to Promote Neuroplasticity After Spinal Cord Injury
Now that you understand what neuroplasticity is and how it works, you’re probably wondering what you can do to optimize its effects.
Three essential components for promoting neuroplasticity are specificity, repetition, and intensity.
1. Train Specifically
Training specifically is crucial for promoting neuroplasticity because each movement you make is attributed to a specific set of neural pathways.
If you want to recover walking, you have to practice walking.
Depending on the severity of your spinal cord injury, you may need to break this up into steps like individually strengthening the muscles, learning how to stand, shift your weight, and stay balanced.
It’s all part of the process that will help you develop the skills necessary to meet your end goal.
2. Train Repetitively
Recovering a function after spinal cord injury requires lots of repetition because you’re reteaching your brain, spinal cord, and body to work in sync again.
Every time you repeat a movement, you’re strengthening the neural pathways for that movement.
The stronger the neural pathways, the easier and more natural the movement becomes.
3. Train Intensely
The intensity of your training is going to determine how quickly you recover.
Intensity consists of how much resistance, speed, repetitions, time, and effort is put into your recovery.
You want to consistently challenge yourself.
As mentioned earlier, the spinal cord has increased plasticity during the first few months following SCI. This is why spinal cord injury patients see the most recovery within the first year after their injury.
While the spinal cord will always have neuroplasticity, and you can continue to see results years following your SCI, we highly encourage you to take advantage of the heightened state of plasticity and train intensely.
Understanding Neuroplasticity and Spinal Cord Injury
There is a lot of exciting, promising research being done on potential treatments for spinal cord injury like electrical stimulation and stem cell transplantations.
However, these treatments are still works in progress. They may help make it easier to move but will not miraculously recover your movements.
The only way to recover movement after spinal cord injury is through consistent high intensity, high repetition training that promotes neuroplasticity.
Because of neuroplasticity, there’s always hope for recovery after incomplete spinal cord injury!
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